One of the major goals of the Spiritual Maturity Project is to enhance Bible readers' knowledge of scripture and confidence in reading. To this end, I have created a course in our Foundations series (three courses), to be launched in a few days. Watch for the announcement.
Becoming fruitful Bible readers faces one major challenge and it reveals an irony. In our pragmatic culture (generally a good), we have adopted a practice of "application" that, ironically, gets in the way of the goal it seeks to achieve.
I'll explain what I mean by way of an example. In Matthew 9:2-8, we find a version of the story about the paralytic whom Jesus heals. It's controversial because Jesus says to the paralytic, "Your sins are forgiven," which causes a debate between Jesus and some religious leaders, who think Jesus is committing blasphemy.
Many, many of us have learned to read the Bible with an eye to application. We want to know how the passage "fits" our lives, how it "applies" to us. We rightly seek practical guidance from the Bible. It's a very good motive, but it suffers much confusion, which we need to correct. I'm trying to help with the correction.
First, let me describe the process that needs correcting: many people ready a passage like this one from Matthew, and, after taking thirty seconds to mull over their impressions, they jump to the application question: How does this apply to our lives now? By "apply," we typically mean something like guidance for living or - in the case of this story - healing we might need, since the story seems to be about someone being healed.
Right here, the trouble starts. The vast, vast majority of sincere Bible readers are not physically paralyzed, so we must spiritualize the story to make it applicable. A seemingly fitting question, in this light, becomes, "How are we spiritually (or emotionally) paralyzed?" As I ponder my condition, I can think of several potentially useful answers. I may pray and ask God for guidance. Once I settle on what feels like an insight or a glimpse of understanding as to my spiritual "paralysis," I can then ask Jesus to heal me.
This shift to the application question activates a web of thoughts and feelings, shaped by background beliefs (convictions that we have picked up a variety of ways) most of which operate tacitly, that is, not consciously. The rush to "apply" prematurely moves us from the scripture to our context and our experience, our sense of what is happening in our lives. Without noticing, our minds have moved away from the scripture entirely. While studying the Bible, we lose track of the Bible's contents. In our press to apply scriptural truth, there is not a lot of scriptural truth being applied. Irony abounds.
The correction? It is not fancy or complicated, although it does take awareness, discipline, and practice. The spiritualizing questions for the sake of application can be very helpful, when done at the right time. We need courage to resist the temptation to start looking for "application" right away and to delay that sort of question to later in our study practices. It means, therefore, and above all, to slow down. It means noticing details and often stating what feels like the obvious, which seems totally useless, but isn't.
What happens when you slow down and notice details in reading this Matthew text? One thing we see is that some form of the word "forgive" appears repeatedly:
"Take heart, son; your sins are forgiven" (v. 2).
"Which is easier, to say, 'Your sins are forgiven,' or to say..." (v. 4)
"But so that you may know that the Son of Man has authority on earth to forgive sins..." (v. 6)
Three times in seven verses the same term is used, a detail worth noticing. It prompts a discomforting question. How does forgiveness of sin relate to the condition of the paralyzed man? It has unsettling implications about sin and physical infirmity. We have to accept this uneasiness and not let it derail our reflections.
Just this little bit of slowing down to notice details in the passage redirects our focus away from the how-does-this-apply-to-my-life question and toward claims in (and of) the text. Jesus, the Son of Man, has authority on earth to forgive sin. The paralytic's healing - a precious liberating gift to the paralytic, to be sure - serves to point to a more basic truth: Jesus has the power to forgive, and does.
What does forgiveness mean? It means release, to set free (and to be set free) from whatever sin or offense binds (paralyzes) someone. Which raises the question: for what do I need forgiveness? And related: in what ways do I need to repent?
See how naturally our reading "gets practical" by slowing down and noticing what is truly in the text and holding off on the "application" question till later?
As students of Jesus we need to be responsible, careful readers of the scriptures. You don't need a toolbox full of techniques. You need a few guiding principles, like resisting the temptation to speed up Bible reading for the sake of application; like paying close attention to details, even when that closeness feels like a waste of time; like legitimating seemingly inconsequential observations and daring to ask the questions that come to your mind. Those questions very well may be and often are points of contact between you and the Holy Spirit.
With good Bible reading habits, application starts to look noticeably different than what passes for application now. I'm convinced that what I'm appealing for in this post makes Bible study imminently more practical and lifegiving than what often gets called application in so many churches and Bible study circles today.
A final word to pastors: please wean yourselves away from the rush to apply in your preaching and teaching, as if to make the scriptures "relevant to our lives." Help your people dwell with and in the texts themselves. Certainly, as you wrestle with scripture, God will illumine your understanding and you will have plenty of opportunity to share practical wisdom, but on an entirely different basis than our conventional thinking provides.
The staggering ignorance of most Christians regarding Holy Scripture, with all its troubling results, has a simple solution. Read. Read often and in large quantities. (Our impatience is killing us.) Take time. Notice details. Avoid premature conclusions. Soak in the scriptures. Abide in the Vine. You will be amazed at what happens.